Indian Country Today
It was an unusual sight: thousands of pounds of salmon being flown into coastal Alaskan communities that typically fish for salmon themselves. The cargo was an outside relief effort, meant to help provide food for an area long viewed as abundant with fish.
The villages in the Chignik Intertribal Coalition recently received a donation of 45,000 pounds of Bristol Bay sockeye as part of a new nonprofit initiative by two southeast Alaskan fishing organizations.
The coalition is composed of five southwestern Alaska Native villages: Chignik Bay, Chignik Lagoon, Chignik Lake, Ivanof Bay and Perryville. It formed in 2018, when a record-low salmon run prompted former Gov. Bill Walker to declare an economic disaster in the region.
Since then, the area’s salmon levels have not improved: This year’s run was the worst recorded since statehood, said George Anderson, coalition president.
The reason is not always clear. Factors for low runs can include overfishing in other areas, rising water temperatures and uneven fish management across the state.
The villages decided not to participate in subsistence fishing this year, in hopes that doing so would help restore local sockeye stocks.
“Giving up our subsistence harvest and in turn allowing the fish to escape to the river system was the right thing to do, but left local people without the salmon they depend on,” said Anderson, a tribal member of the Native village of Chignik Lagoon.
Salmon is a huge part of the region’s economy and culture, with fishing used as a source of income and food. The practice has been passed down for hundreds of years.
“When salmon are missing from our being, it just really throws everything upside down. It is really hard to quantify the impact,” Anderson said.
The donation was made possible by Catch Together, a nonprofit that supports innovative conservation initiatives. The organization collaborated with two other programs: Alaskans Own, a community-supported fishery created by the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association, and Northline Seafoods, a Southeast Alaskan salmon processor.
The organizations first became interested in donating fish due to food security concerns prompted by COVID-19, explained Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association.
“When COVID hit, it was clear that the fishermen were going to be facing much lower prices, because of restaurant closures. And it was also clear that we would be seeing families in need,” she said.
They started by providing seafood to Sitka families on a weekly basis, she said.
The groups soon heard that villages in the Chignik region were also facing food insecurity challenges, although not due to COVID-19. Anderson and the organizations were able to coordinate, and the large salmon donation came to fruition.
“It was incredibly generous,” Anderson said.
Commercial and subsistence fishing makes up a large portion of the region’s economy. For those who do not sell their catch, the summer’s salmon supply provides a reliable food source for the winter.
The financial burden of a bad salmon run can be implicit as well. Some tribal members from the region spend winters in Anchorage for work, then return in the summer to fish. Without a reliable salmon run, the costs of going home to fish can be prohibitive.
“We have fewer and fewer people able to come back home not only to partake in the commercial fishery, but to come home and also get their winter subsistence supply,” Anderson said. “The folks that can no longer afford to come back here and gamble on getting subsistence were actually able to go to Anchorage to pick up some fish to throw in their freezers and smokers.”
Some also fear a lack of subsistence and commercial fishing could negatively impact the future of their traditions and culture.
“Here, salmon is life. It is everything you do,” explained Anderson. “If you don’t have salmon to subsist on, you can't teach your children and grandchildren to go out and catch it. The same goes on the commercial side — if you're not able to go out and partake in a fishery because you don't have salmon, you can’t pass down traditions, values and work ethic. And it creates a huge void.”
Despite the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the salmon donation, the joint community effort was an inspiring sight to those involved.
“It was so heartwarming how fishermen, processors and people in the community just jumped in to help with processing the fish, moving the fish, all of it,” Behnken said. “The willingness of Alaskan coastal communities to help other coastal communities and coastal people was very heartwarming.”
The Chignik Intertribal Coalition and Alaskans Own hope to continue to search for other ways to combat low salmon runs, regional food insecurity and inefficient fishery management going forward.
“Whether it be climate change, antiquated management practices, or the lack of technology/scientific-based capacity — or a combination of all these threats — we need to find some answers to become more resilient to the changes we face,” reads a coalition letter.
Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a Stanford Rebele Fellow for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from our Anchorage Bureau.